The best bit about being in the archives is that you stumble on all kinds of stuff that you weren’t looking for: the ‘pleasure of learning singular things‘.
Today, for example, at the end of the afternoon, I was looking through an entire microfilmed volume of bound archival documents for what proved to be a single uninformative letter about refugees in French mandate Syria. To find it I spooled through document after document, pausing just long enough on the first page of each to check the bit on the left-hand side saying ‘A/S.’, for au sujet de, or ‘Re:’, and telling you what’s there. When I found myself looking at a letter about un scandale tripolitain—a scandal in Tripoli, Lebanon—I had to read through the whole thing, and the attached cutting from a Tripoli newspaper. I was richly rewarded.
The author of the letter is the French High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon, Damien de Martel—a shrewd operator with a dry sense of humour who’d served everywhere from Washington to Siberia. The background to the scandal is that the Greek Orthodox community in Tripoli, and indeed Syria and Lebanon as a whole, had recently undergone a bitter near-schism over a disputed patriarchal succession. (The Syrian jurist and politician Yusuf al-Hakim mentions in his memoirs that the dispute wrecked his mother’s funeral: when he and the other mourners arrived at the cemetery with the cortège, they found a couple of boozed-up partisans of the other side had locked them out of the graveyard and were singing rowdy songs inside.)
There’s the context—here’s the scandal:
There has just occurred at Tripoli a scandal which part of the Greek Orthodox community has, unfortunately, seized on as a reason to rebel against their bishop, who is reproached with having compromised the dignity of the church in an adventure of a very particular character.
Monsignor Geha had been linked in a very warm friendship, whose purity some doubted, with a young man of the town whose reputation—rather like that of the prelate himself—is already well established. The public would surely not have concerned itself with these practices, which are common currency […], if the young Levite in question, probably anxious to draw a profit from these relations, on the nature of which I won’t venture to comment, had not suddenly feigned a virtuous indignation, proclaiming that his pastor had attempted to interfere with his innocence and showing off a jar filled with alcohol which contained a piece of ‘that part which is bound to chastity’, as a local journalist put it—a piece seemingly detached by way of an exhibit for the prosecution.
Emotion in the city was extreme: the bishop was a protégé of the current patriarch, and they and their followers had a hard time responding to adversaries who were waving evidence like that. In the end the bishop ‘was obliged to submit to a medical exam, appearing before three doctors of different denominations who were invited to inspect the object of the dispute from a great distance. Their certification, however ill-founded it may be, will I hope lead to a calming of the spirits.’
De Martel’s own unillusioned opinion was that the whole business smelled of ‘blackmail and machination’, but that the bishop’s ‘dangerous frolics’ were a gift to his enemies—who weren’t philosophical enough simply to observe, with the High Commissionner, that ‘sinners cover the earth’.
The internet tells me that he’s quoting Racine, in Athalie:
Mon Dieu, qu’une vertu naissante
Parmi tant de périls marche à pas incertains !
Qu’une âme qui te cherche et veut être innocente
Trouve d’obstacle à ses desseins !
Que d’ennemis lui font la guerre !
Où se, peuvent cacher tes saints ?
Les pécheurs couvrent la terre.
The document, and the newspaper cutting that went with it—apparently written
by the brother of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut!—
are in the French foreign ministry archives, La Courneuve:
Correspondance politique et commerciale, Série E—Levant, 1918–1940, volume 512, documents 149–152:
letter from de Martel to Foreign Ministry (9 Nov 1934) and enclosure.